I kind of had to get this off my chest.
Short version: Think twice before you click that share button on social media. Even for stuff by me!
I kind of had to get this off my chest.
Short version: Think twice before you click that share button on social media. Even for stuff by me!
Count Dracula has been many things over his century-plus career – a villain, a lover, a monster, a tragic romantic figure – but then there was that time a Dracula became the world’s most inept superhero.
Dell Comics was a publisher with its main focus on comics starring licensed characters from Donald Duck to Yogi Bear to Star Trek. But for a brief time in the mid 1960s, they attempted to create the next big superhero universe by licensing the Universal Monsters characters and creating superheroes based on Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man.
None of them lasted more than three issues. Why? Because, basically, they were unspeakably bland and goofy stuff, and compared to the heyday of Marvel Comics and a slowly modernizing DC Comics, they screamed “generic superhero comic,” shoving the creepy classic monsters into ill-fitting spandex suits.
Yet for pure kitsch value along, you can’t ignore Dell’s Dracula, perhaps the worst of all the Draculas out there. Dell’s Frankenstein was a misfire too but there’s a bit of a history with making him an antihero. But turning Count Dracula into an utterly assembly-line crimefighter, complete with spunky sidekick? To quote the original Dracula, “that sucks.”
Dell’s Dracula isn’t the original Drac, but a modern-day Count Dracula, a scientist trying to defy the family legacy. Because he’s inept, he accidentally drinks a top-secret formula he was working on that allows him to turn into a bat. Just a regular bat. Which really isn’t the world’s best super-power, but never mind that.
He decides it’s time to fight crime and make the world a better place despite his tainted family name, dons a ridiculous costume that looks a lot more like “Cat Man” than “Bat Man,” and ends up fighting villains like Boris Eval (because he’s “Evil,” get it?) and Hob Goblin. His “secret identity” is the stunningly clever alias of “Al U. Card.”
You might think hey, that’s not the worst hook to hang a comic book on, right? There might be potential there? Unfortunately, Dell’s Dracula was a prime example of the strained, stiff world of off-brand superhero comics of the 1960s, where writers tried to be Stan Lee and failed.
Dell’s Dracula had incredibly inert artwork and dialogue that sounded like it came from a first grader reader’s primer – “I wish to be a partner in your schemes of evil.” While silver age comics could often seem a bit childish by modern standards, Dell’s Dracula didn’t just seem immature – it was so removed from regular human interaction that it seemed like it came from another planet.
But… that said, I still kind of love the kitschy charm of Dell’s Dracula (and Frankenstein, which is slightly less bad). With the third and final issue, the creators seem to realise this isn’t working as a serious comic.
By the time Drac’s buxom companion dresses up as “Fleeta” (short for “Fledermaus,” German for ‘bat,’ of course) in a costume that’s even worse than Dracula’s, you start to think maybe it’ll all go full camp, loosen up and embrace the absurdity of its concept.
But nope – mere panels after Fleeta joins Dracula in his battle against crime, their comic adventures ended forever, the two would-be-heroes transformed into bats and flying off into the moonset, unmourned and forgotten.
Super-Dracula would never rise again.
There have been many different Nicolas Cages.
There was the offbeat comic who emerged in movies like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, the Oscar winner or nominee of Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, the askew popular action hero in Con Air and Face/Off, and the somewhat lost jobbing actor who appeared in an seemingly endless parade of barely-noticed flicks with titles like Rage, Arsenal and Kill Chain. He’s appeared in well over 100 films.
No matter what the material, Cage is always at least a little interesting even in the worst of movies, and a well-deserving cult has formed around him. I’ve been a fan at least since the Vampire’s Kiss days, when I rented a somewhat random VHS tape and ended up staring slackjawed at the screen, wondering what the hell I’d just seen.
It’s hard to see a pattern sometimes in Cage’s relentless productivity, allegedly at least some of which is due to money troubles.
But one clear underlying theme has developed in some of Cage’s recent work – one man facing the cosmic horror of an uncaring universe, an idea straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. There’s been a string of movies in recent years where Cage takes his abilities to the outer limits, portraying a string of gruff, stoic men fighting against the random chaos and carnage the universe can produce. In movies like Mandy, Color Out Of Space, Willy’s Wonderland and Pig, Cage has morphed into a kind of bronzed icon of the doomed hero, a figure out of myth and horror who simply fights back, the best he can.
Not all of these movies are created equal – Willy’s Wonderland is a goofy B-movie lark while Pig is a surprisingly touching drama – but what they all feature is Cage, uncaged, taking bold chances that didn’t seem possible in the days when he was doing fluff like Honeymoon In Vegas. He’s done his share of unmemorable generic action flicks, but when he wants to, Nicolas Cage still surprises you.
In 2018’s Mandy, an almost unbearably dark slice of psychedelic horror, Cage’s wife is murdered by a Satanic cult and he amps up for a run of heavy-metal vengeance. In Willy’s Wonderland, he’s a mute janitor who ends up fighting animatronic cartoon characters in a haunted funhouse. In Color Out Of Space, a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s groundbreaking cosmic horror tale, Cage and his entire family are overwhelmed and transformed by a malign presence from beyond the stars. And in Pig, what seems to be yet another riff on John Wick, about a recluse whose pet pig is stolen, turns into a surprisingly melancholy, affecting meditation on revenge and acceptance that doesn’t go anywhere you expect it would. Pig isn’t steeped in fantasy like the other three films, but at its heart we still have Cage as a man fighting back against fearful, overwhelming forces – in this case, all of modern society.
In all four of these movies, Cage is a solid, looming figure – he’s bulkier, beardier than he was in his lanky 1990s stardom, a hulking presence. And in each of them, he faces a world that’s out to hurt him, in which fate is unpredictable and often malign. He does more with his eyes and a piercing stare than a lot of the excitable gestures of his earlier career.
It’s a good fit for Cage in his latter years (he’s now 57), because he’s channeled that quirky likability of his earlier films into a more ominous allure. Even in a strange experiment like Willy’s Wonderland, where his character is mute the entire film, he holds your attention in a movie that would be fairly unmemorable without him. And in something like the justly well-reviewed Pig, where he’s also highly restrained, he’s still very capable of breaking your heart a little bit as a hermit who is also kind of a sage.
I’m digging Cage’s cosmic horror phase. I know there’ll be several more Nicolas Cages to come before his career is done – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing an elder statesman Cage – but in a world where everything we knew seems to be a bit uncertain and shaky these last few years, Nicolas Cage staring into the void and fighting back against its horrors seems like the perfect man for the times.
My favourite guitar player isn’t a household name.
The thing about music criticism I’ve realised over the years I’ve dabbled in it is, all criticism is fundamentally a very personal thing. You can look at something in the broader cultural context, you can use all the fancy words you want to describe it, and yet in the end you often have to go with your gut. Does this move you?
There’s many guitar players out there who I dig, whose technical mastery is next to none. You can’t ignore Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell or Nancy Wilson, Django Reinhardt, George Harrison or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince or Frank Zappa, Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. And I like pretty much all of ‘em.
But when it comes to the guitarist who moves me the most, who evokes pictures in my brain that none of the rest do, it’s Richard Thompson I turn to every time. He is a comfort for me in troubling times.
Thompson is not a rock god celebrity, although among a certain brand of music fan he’s certainly well loved. And for me, he’s among the most soulful of guitar players, his work reaching deep into some kind of elemental place. From his early days with folk-rockers Fairport Convention to his stunning collaborations with his former wife Linda Thompson and on to his venerable solo career, Thompson’s distinctive yearning sound is one I turn to again and again in life to get a break from the world.
I first cottoned on to Thompson with his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, full of gently askew humour and pathos, with the cutting observations and forensic bits of detail in his songwriting that also make him one of our best lyricists. The “hit” single from that album, “I Feel So Good,” with its chorus, “I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight” – sums up Thompson’s worldview – happy, yet a bit bitter, nostalgic, yet optimistic. When I listened to that cassette I picked up at a shopping mall somewhere in suburban California years ago, I was transported to a new place. I’ve been going back there ever since.
Most of those who we think of when we think of the greatest guitar players are men, and the vast majority of them play with a very masculine, dominating swagger – picture Eddie Van Halen soloing, Pete Townshend windmilling. Swagger is a very big part of the rock guitar sound and hey, I love it, too.
Yet Thompson, unlike a lot of guitar gods, doesn’t play with a lot of ego. There’s little boasting in his sound, but instead a kind of cathartic release, whether he’s finger-picking a gentle ballad or soaring into dazzling long rides. There’s a great quote about the legendary Howlin’ Wolf attributed to producer Sam Phillips that I often think of whenever I listen to Thompson: “This is where the soul of man never dies.”
There’s deep riches in Thompson’s catalogue over his 50-year career I never stop enjoying exploring. The heartbreaking character portraits of “Beeswing” or “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” or the explosive release of “Wall of Death” or “Calvary Cross,” where you can feel Thompson getting lost in the song’s story, his guitar jams a pivotal cog in the machine of songcraft rather than just being showy.
“I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song,” he once told The Guardian. The slow stair-stepping chord progression of “Calvary Cross,” with its building tension and release, floors me every time I listen to it, and when I dive into the never-ending joys of sprawling live versions of it.
Look, I’m not any kind of technical music critic. I’m a listener, who’s darned clueless when it comes to the ins and outs of how gorgeous sounds are made. Hendrix made amazing, unmistakable sounds with the guitar, but how he made ‘em, I couldn’t tell you.
So with Richard Thompson, for me, it’s all about how the music hits the gut. And he moves me.
I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…
Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.
In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!
Like pretty much every cartoonist who ever picked up a pen, I worship at the feet of Charles M. Schulz, the master of the simple line.
I’ve written before about my love for the rapidly vanishing newspaper comic. After a steady diet of them as a kid, classic Peanuts strips are embedded in my brain. Even if I last read them 20, 30 years ago, they seem like familiar friends. I read them now less with an eye for the gags (although Schulz could be side-splittingly funny, especially when it came to depicting rage), and more with an eye on the craft.
They say that writing is often the art of chipping away, scraping off the excess to find the truth underneath all those fluttering words. In my work as a journalist, you’re trained to get to the point. Every single panel by Schulz feels like the point – comic art stripped to the barest essentials.
When I first started drawing my own little silly comics years ago, I took my inspiration from superhero superstars Neal Adams, John Byrne and particularly the insanely detailed crosshatch-filled black-and-white work of Dave Sim and Gerhard on Cerebus. I did a fairly awful job of imitating these far better artists, because I didn’t have the base of skill underneath.
Even though I loved Peanuts, if you’d asked scribbling young Nik if Schulz was a great artist, he might’ve said no, but he was a good cartoonist. But now I see clearly the detail in his design, how he could dash off a few lines to clearly delineate a house, a brick wall, a kite-eating tree, a doghouse, and it worked.
Have you ever tried to actually draw Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, like Schulz did? Most budding cartoonists give it a try, and it’s harder than it looks. I’ve done a few Peanuts pastiche/homage comic strips over the years, and every time it’s like learning to draw with a new limb:
You look at his earlier strips, and there was a more ornate feeling to the art, with some tricky perspective shots and more detailed backgrounds that were gradually abandoned as the strip shrunk in scope, but widened in its emotional palette. By the time Schulz hit his stride by the mid-1960s, he’d refined Peanuts to the point of abstraction. Things got weird – a kite-eating tree? A bird who spoke in scratch marks? Snoopy becomes a helicopter? – but because of Schulz’s humble everyman style, the surrealism of Peanuts always seemed downright cozy.
There’s other cartoonists who went equally spare, like Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (Barnaby surely a distant relative of Charlie Brown?). More recently, Jeff Smith’s Bone always dazzled me with its simple, clear lines. Yet many other remaining gag cartoons like Wizard Of Id or Family Circus or Dennis The Menace were simply drawn, but never quite managed the deep control and deceptive depth Schulz could with his art.
Schulz’s smooth line got sadly shaky in his final years of Peanuts, due to health problems. The easy effortless lines of the strip’s peak gave way to an old man’s more hesitant form. Yet the DNA of a master craftsman was still there in every panel, despite his struggles.
But boy, when he was at his best – which to be honest, was for most of Peanuts’ staggering 50-year-run – Charles Schulz laid down a line that many would imitate, and few would ever better.
I keep trying to write a blog post about The Fall, and failing.
This is not a blog post about The Fall.
The Fall were a post-punk band from industrial Manchester who were insanely prolific, yet the very definition of a cult act. Frontman Mark E. Smith stomped, snarled and muttered his way through an endless sea of clattering albums over 40 years until his death at age 60 in 2018.
For some people, The Fall are everything. For some, if they’ve even heard of them, they’re just annoying noise.
I have a greatest hits collection, the ironically titled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. The first song on it is “Repetition,” and it sums up the band’s gritty ethos with the first words Smith utters – “Right noise!”
Prior to 2018, I liked The Fall, and had a couple of their albums, but I wasn’t what I’d call a super-fan. There’s people who devote a giant chunk of their lives to The Fall.
When Mark E. Smith died, I started listening to them more and more and scooping up albums any time I saw them. I often do that when someone famous dies, I go back to their work, and get a bit obsessive about them for a spell. It’s morbid but I bet I’m not the only person who does it.
The Fall has a song on their 2001 Album Are You Missing Winner? I listened to like five times yesterday. That’s not their best known or loved album, and the song, “Crop-Dust,” is probably not even in their 100 best songs. I kind of love it.
It swirls in and out like a deranged anthem from another world, distorted and spooky, hypnotic, and Smith starts barking away like a lost dog. A YouTube commenter says, “It sounds like a drunk Mark E. Smith phoned the vocal in after getting trapped inside a telephone box.” It really does.
At least 60% of people I know would hate that song.
The late John Peel memorably summed up The Fall by saying, “They are always different; they are always the same.”
Smith was fascinating, querulous and eccentric, but I don’t imagine I’d have liked him much in real life. In his final years he looked like a melting wax figure of himself.
In January 2018, the same month Mark E. Smith died of cancer, I nearly died of something I didn’t even know I had. I’ve kind of divided my life since then into “before, and after.” I began listening to The Fall a lot that year, spurred on by editing news stories about Mark E. Smith’s death, and listening to 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong over and over and over. It was a weird time in my life, and the snarling chaos of The Fall seemed to help it make sense.
Every time I turned around, there was a new album to discover. There’s still a dozen or two I haven’t listened to. I like The Fall a lot, but I wouldn’t call me expert enough in their strange universe to write about the sweep of their career, of their deeper meaning.
Music is weird because it’s like a fingerprint on your brain. The things I see when I hear Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” or Crowded House’s “Distant Sun” aren’t the things you see; the soothing void “Crop-Dust” plunges me into might just give you a migraine.
Sometimes you want right noise, you want a secret language that you feel like only you can understand.
I listen to The Fall a lot, and I’m nowhere near the bottom yet.
This was not a blog post about The Fall.
What is it: First off, before we get into Ishtar, let’s talk about how awesome Elaine May is. With the late Mike Nichols, she was half of Nichols and May, a hilarious and subversive comic duo who took America by storm in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with their dry, improvisational wit inspiring folks like Steve Martin and David Letterman. A lot of their stuff is still pretty darned funny today. After Nichols and May ran their course, Elaine May became a screenwriter, director and wry actress in her own right – her fingerprints are all over movies as a writer and “script polisher” including Tootsie, The Birdcage, Labyrinth, Reds and Heaven Can Wait.
May’s work as a film director never got quite as famous as her former partner Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) but her small filmography – just four movies as director – is a treasure trove of askew, insightful comedy that’s well worth hunting out. You’ve got Walter Matthau in the 1971 black romantic comedy A New Leaf, a perfect little offbeat love story between spoiled rich jerk Matthau and May herself as a ditzy botanist; the twisted hit man buddy comedy/drama Mikey and Nicky with a fantastic John Cassavetes as a man having a nervous breakdown and Peter Falk as his best friend; and her masterpiece, 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, starring the late great Charles Grodin and an absolutely luminous Cybill Shepherd in one of the meanest, most biting romantic satires I’ve ever seen. May was a pioneer for women in filmmaking – when she signed a deal with Paramount to make A New Leaf in the late 1960s, she was the first female director in decades to break that glass ceiling, in a world where female directors were as rare as snow leopards in a desert. But she also fought with the studio bosses from her first film to her last, culminating in her being fired from Mikey and Nicky and actually stealing some of the film canisters and hiding them in a garage in a bit that sounds like it was ripped straight from an Elaine May movie.
And then there’s 1987’s Ishtar, her fourth and final film as a director, a word that became shorthand for “box office disaster.” Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were massive stars at the time, and an epic road trip buddy comedy starring them as hack musicians caught up in a Cold War-era spy plot seemed like it’d be a box office bonanza in the heady 1980s. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. May, still around at 89, never directed another major Hollywood movie again, although she did continue working as a screenwriter and occasional actress and these days she’s widely remembered for her career highs rather than the occasional lows.
Why I never saw it: While I’m a connoisseur of fascinatingly bad movies – I proudly own Plan Nine From Outer Space, The Room and Toxic Avenger – Ishtar was seen as more of a bloated classic Hollywood misfire than a movie that’s so bad it’s good. I only finally got to it recently because I’ve been watching May’s utterly charming earlier films, and it felt like it was time to finally come to terms with the one that basically ended her directing career. The reason Ishtar flopped are many, but it basically boils down to money and hubris. May had a reputation as an indecisive and somewhat spendthrift director, which worked for smaller character-focused work like The Heartbreak Kid, but Ishtar was one of those big booming ‘80s comedies where excess was part of the furniture. Throw in the big egos of Beatty and Hoffman and the studio heads, and autopsies of Ishtar show it’s clearly a case of far too many cooks labouring over a rather mediocre, overstuffed dish.
Does it measure up to its rep? So how bad is this film, anyway? At the time of its release in 1987, you’d have thought Ishtar was a child-eating serial killer, so bad was its press. Roger Ebert called it “truly dreadful” and endless reams of newspaper and magazine copy focused on the wasteful big budget and production dramas. But while there have been efforts to reclaim Ishtar in the years since as some kind of underrated gem, in reality it’s somewhere in between. Distanced from all the drama about budget and production, it’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s also a clunky patched-together beast that lacks the tight focus of a twisted buddy comedy like May’s Mikey and Nicky.
Here’s the main problem – you’re asked to buy Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, two of the world’s biggest movie stars, as sad-sack loser songwriters convinced of their own genius. Their star power overwhelms the premise. Hoffman comes off marginally better – “overconfident loser” is part of his whole vibe – but Beatty, much as I like him, is simply not plausible as a fumbling dimwit. Beatty can play losers – the iconic Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s doomed gambler in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the corrupt politician having a nervous breakdown in the terrific Bulworth – but he’s not right for this role at all. When the movie focuses on Hoffman and Beatty as failed musicians performing their terrible songs, it’s fitfully amusing, but when the action shifts to Morocco, where they’ve somehow managed to land a few gigs, it turns into one of those very ‘80s spy action comedies with a convoluted, confusing plot about lost magical maps and duelling factions in the Middle East. A little bit racist now in its ogling of the culture and traditions of a “foreign land” (a scene where Hoffman starts screaming in pidgin Arabic does not age well), Ishtar loses what little grounding it had when it goes to Morocco. I will admit the recurring gags with a blind camel are pretty good, though.
Ishtar has the bones of a decent movie in it – recast Beatty with someone like an ‘80s Michael Keaton, trim the Morocco adventures and focus more on two loveable loser songwriters, and it might work, but then it’d probably be a different movie entirely. Elaine May’s comedy is at its best when it picks at the recognisable foibles and flaws in everyday life and exaggerates them. When you start having Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in a pitched gun battle with helicopters in the Moroccan desert, you lose that. Regrettably, May’s career took the brunt of the Ishtar fallout and the resulting backlash hurt women directors in general, which seems more than a little unfair as it sounds like Warren Beatty and others own a fair bit of the blame as well.
Worth seeing? More of an interesting failure rather than a world-shattering bomb for the ages, it’s a compromised, uncertain comic romp lacking the focus of May’s other films. If you’re making a pilgrimage through history’s “biggest bombs” it’s worth seeing, but on its own merits the pleasures are sporadic at best. I’d definitely start with The Heartbreak Kid if you want to get a better feel for May’s witty charms. Ishtar may have bombed, but Elaine May’s career was more like that of a shooting star.
If you want a comic book to be truly great, in my humble opinion, add the word “WEIRD” to the title.
As I get older and quirkier, I find odd ways to satisfy my comic book needs. And Weird is always a good way to do it. There’s something about the word “Weird” appended to any comic book name that automatically makes it reek of pulpy charms, of dashing granite-jawed heroes and gorgeous dames, of creepy swamp-dwellers and horrible twists of fate.
It’s a catchy adjective. There’s been something like 100 titles with the word “Weird” in them since the first comics more than 80 years ago.
The granddaddy of Weird Comics was of course, EC Comics’ marvellous Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles, which produced some of the most beautifully drawn, sharp-witted science fiction stories in comics history, led by the stunning art of Wallace Wood. I first read those Weird Science and Fantasy titles when they were reprinted in the 1980s, and to this day they’re stunning stuff. (When the market turned toxic for EC Comics, they briefly became the very oddly named Weird Science-Fantasy before the line ended entirely.)
Before Weird Science, there was the golden age Weird Comics, a grab-bag anthology that wasn’t so much weird as bargain-basement cheap, like a lot of forgotten lower-tier Golden Age stuff, featuring the adventures of The Dart, Panther Woman, Dr. Mortal, and … Thor? (No, not that Thor.)
But the weird kept on coming, with DC Comics leading the way with one of my favourite peculiarities, the 1970s’ Weird War Tales, which managed to combine the gritty he-man realism of the publisher’s Sgt. Rock type comics with the spooky horror of House of Mystery. You would think “war stories with an element of the supernatural” would run out of steam quickly, but it lasted a surprisingly long 124 issues and 12 years, dying off along with pretty much every other DC Comics war title in the early 1980s. I always go out of my way to grab Weird War Tales when I see it in the back-issue bins; the stories could be rather daffy and the general theme of “hey, war is hell” hammered into the ground, but the art was almost always amazing and there’s a mad invention to the stories, especially when they started adding things like G.I Robot and the Creature Commandos (“What if the Universal Horror monsters were war heroes?”) to the mix.
DC also saw Weird Western Tales, which mainly focused on the awesomely hard-boiled adventures of Jonah Hex and the Native American Scalphunter, and Weird Mystery Tales, one of the endless horror anthologies that thrived in the early 1970s.
Later, DC went full weird and introduced a compelling antihero simply CALLED “The Weird,” in a rather good offbeat superhero miniseries of the same name by Jim Starlin and the amazing Bernie Wrightson where a cosmic energy possesses a dead man.
Marvel Comics never got quite as titularly weird as DC, although they did have the catch-all reprints series Weird Wonder Tales, which I dig because it introduced the modern version of the bald hero everybody loves to hate, Doctor Druid. Later Marvel even introduced a whole Weirdworld which was basically Lord of the Rings meets Elfquest, appeared sporadically in the 1970s and was briefly revived a few years back.
Meanwhile, if you care to indulge in the most adult side of things, you’ve got more adult-oriented underground comix series like Weird Sex and Weird Smut (I’ll let you google those yourselves). But my personal favourite weird comic in recent years was IDW/Yoe Comics’ series reprinting the strangest and silliest of the vast world of vintage romance comics, Weird Love.
It ran for 24 issues and every single of them was full of gems of a genre that’s almost forgotten nowadays and it was honestly one of my favourite comics in recent years, even if everything in it was decades old. Kitschy, sexy and pulpy as heck, Weird Love summed up the essence of what weird comics are all about.
It’s a reminder that the very, very weird is often the best comics can get.
I’ve got a shelf in the spare bedroom that’s overloaded with musty vintage Stephen King paperbacks, stacked up high. I like to think of the man as our modern Charles Dickens, a spinner of ripping yarns who’s managed to be insanely popular and yet also, kind of great at what he does.
In his nearly 50-year-career, he’s written an astonishing 80 or so books – novels, story collections, rare limited editions and pulpy crime novels that use horror to get at the truths of the human heart. Some are better than others, but his batting average is pretty darned good. Everyone loves The Stand, but how about a good ol’ creepy underrated tale like From A Buick 8?
Many years ago now, I set off on the insane task to do a complete brief review of every Stephen King book (leaving out the oddities like limited editions and children’s books). I began this all the way the hell back in 2009 on my old blog, and as King keeps on scribbling, I keep on updating it. It’s been two years since my last round-up and there’s still more King to examine! Long may the King reign. Here’s the sixth and latest Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, from 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to 2021’s Later.
Bazaar of Bad Dreams: A Stephen King short story collection is like grabbing a big ol’ pile of vintage EC Comics and diving into an assortment of creepy, haunting little gems. In some ways, the short story is King’s best showcase, because if an idea hasn’t quite worked, there’s another dozen within to grab you. So it’s a mixed bag by nature – the (mildly dated) e-reader-themed piece “Ur” is a grabber, but the poems here, um, aren’t really King’s forte. But I automatically knock up a big thick story collection a half-grade for its sheer bountiful pleasures, and this one’s got many to offer. Grade: A-
End of Watch: The climax of King’s “Detective Hodges” trilogy, with one of his more enduring groups of characters – ageing ex-cop private detective Bill Hodges, autistic savant Holly Gibney and psycho killer Brady Hartsfield. The down-to-earth duo of Bill and Holly have made for some of King’s best and most humane writing in recent years, and while this final book of Bill’s adventures gets a little over-the-top – turning Hartsfield into some kind of evil supervillain rather than the slightly more believable lone madman of Mr. Mercedes – it’s still an enjoyably twisted tale and a fine capper to the series. Grade: B+
Gwendy’s Button Box: A short novella co-written with Richard Chizmar, this tale of an unloved young girl is a kind of spin on “The Monkey’s Paw,” where a mysterious stranger gives a random person an incredibly powerful strange box. Aimed a bit more at the “Harry Potter” crowd than King’s typical work, it’s a quick read that feels more like a sampler aimed at fans who haven’t tried the hardcore King yet. In a collection it might feel a little less puffed-up, but as a slim novella it’s a little forgettable. There’s apparently a sequel by Chizmar I haven’t read and a third book by King and Chizmar on the way, so I might need to revisit this one soon and see how it holds up. Grade: Probationary B, incomplete.
Sleeping Beauties: This one has a good hook but fails to meet its potential. All of the women in the world suddenly disappear, leaving a world of men behind in chaos. Where have they gone, and why? The tone in this one – a collaboration between King and his son Owen – feels curiously inert. While there’s some good ideas about men and women here, they’re delivered in a ham-handed fashion, and the story heavily relies on some fantasy storytelling which doesn’t quite work. I hate to blame it on the younger King, but this just doesn’t feel quite like a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is overlong, but worse, unlike some of King’s other brick-sized books, it’s often boring. Grade: C-
The Outsider: A grim, satisfying murder mystery. A young boy is murdered and all the evidence points to an amiable little league coach even though he is convinced of his innocence. Is there an “outsider” somewhere who’s able to mimic him and commit the most horrible of crimes unpunished? While it gets a little bogged down in one of King’s trademark kind of enigmatic magical climaxes, for the most part this is a terrific read about a man who’s sure of his innocence despite all the evidence, and the devils that lurk inside us all. Grade: A
Elevation: This brisk novella about a man who keeps losing weight might sound like a remake of the far more gruesome Thinner, but it’s more of a fable about a person trying to make peace with his life in an imperfect world. It’s a quick read with some good heart, but a little clumsy in its moralising, so it falls somewhere squarely in the middle of just adequate King-land. Grade: B-
The Institute: It’s inevitable you start to repeat yourself a bit after 50+ books. The Institute has heavy Firestarter vibes with a dash of The Shining, all about young children with mysterious powers taken away to a secret institution. It’s a paranoid, chilling book and you’re left rooting for the young victims of the “Institute.” But while it’s a compulsively readable tale, it doesn’t quite linger in the mind as strongly as King’s similar works. Grade: B
If It Bleeds: Some of my absolute favourite King books have been his collections of hefty themed novellas like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. This one is a more oddball grouping of odds ’n’ ends – the “Detective Hodges” trilogy coda “If It Bleeds,” a good ol’ fashioned scary morality play in “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a rather goofy monster tale in “Rat,” and the best of the lot, the highly experimental “The Life of Chuck,” a man’s life told backwards. It all averages out to a decent bunch of yarns. Grade: B+
Later: I do love the “Hard Case Crime” imprint King has lent some of his pulpier work to in more recent years. It’s a chance for King to be short, sharp and mean, and Later is one of his better pulp efforts, the story of a kid who can “see dead people.” Being King, this is a lot gnarlier than The Sixth Sense. A tale of twisted obsession that calls back to It and King’s recurring theme of young people with special abilities being manipulated and abused, it’s not deep, but it’s solidly entertaining, and ends on a resonant, bittersweet note. Grade: B+
And let’s not forget, the rest of the Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King series: